Phu Quoc; Vietnam’s Southern Island
Like most of Vietnam, the history of Phu Quoc is far from simple. Lying south of Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand, disputes between Cambodia and Vietnam over rights to the island continued into the late 1980’s. Over the years many nations, including Cambodia, France and the US, have staked their claim on Phu Quoc, but it is Vietnam who continue to nurture the island. Today, majority of the island is dedicated to the National Park and protected marine environment.
We were attracted to the island by the promise of endless white sandy beaches and a quiet seaside town. When we arrived, we discovered a resort-lined strip of beach and an old fishing town. Unfortunately, we didn’t muster much motivation or enthusiasm to explore the island further afield. This was largely due to the massive barriers we faced trying to hire a scooter. Firstly, our hotel refused to lend us one as neither of us had an international drivers license. While that was understandable, every other person on the island hiring scooters went in for the kill, trying to charge more than double the reasonable price. We refused to pay, instead opting to spend our time enjoying the township and beach.
We arrived to Phu Quoc sooner than expected. Catching the bus from Sihanoukville in Cambodia and crossing the boarder into Vietnam at Ha Tien, we didn’t think we would make the 1pm ferry. To our surprise, not only was the border crossing quick and easy, the mini-van driver offered to organise our ferry tickets and drop us at the ferry terminal (for a small cost, of course). We jumped at the opportunity, but this meant arrived at Phu Quoc disorientated and disorganised.
Luckily, we had the Vietnam map downloaded on maps.me (the best app to have travelling) and got dropped into the main township, Duong Dong. We quickly found ourselves a room at Hiep Phong Guesthouse, which is one of the guesthouses recommended in the Lonely Planet. Once we settled in, we had a bit of a look around and realised we could get a much nicer room at the Sea Breeze Hotel for the same price. After the first night at Hiep Phong, we moved to Sea Breeze and spent a further two nights there.
After finding the Khmer cuisine similar to that of Laos and Thailand, we were ready for the change we knew we would find in Vietnam. We were not disappointed. We had our first experience with Pho and were both converted. One particular restaurant served us beautiful Pho Bo, beef noodle soup. We returned the following night for more soup and we also tried their beef salad. Not only was it massive, the flavours were incredible and it was unbelievably fresh.
On our first night, we noticed ladies making what looked like a Vietnamese version of tacos, cooking them over coals on the edge of the street. They seemed to be a hit with the locals, with people constantly purchasing them. When we tried them I can see why. On a dry bit of rice paper the put a series of ingredients including egg, spring onions, fried shallots and chilli sauce (that was all I could accurately identify). When they cook it, the rice paper turns crispy and holds the beautiful filling with style. What you are end up with is an incredibly flavoursome Vietnamese taco.
We found café So Phi on our first day and enjoyed it so much we returned multiple times. The café itself has a lovely décor and the food was beautiful. Most exciting, the coffee was superb and the prices were well within our budget. The staff were incredibly friendly and the service was excellent.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
We didn’t get to see too many of the attractions as we were too stubborn to pay the exuberant prices to hire a scooter. We did enjoy exploring Duong Dong and the surrounding area.
This is the main beach in Phu Quoc and is lined with resorts. We wandered a fair way along the beach checking out the scenery. As with Koh Rong and Sihanoukville in Cambodia, most people come to Phu Quoc for a quiet, relaxing beach holiday. We were surprised to find the water was quite polluted. The resorts all have nets up around their stretch of beach, I’m assuming this is to keep the rubbish out.
The Night Markets in Phu Quoc are a bit of an attraction, boasting a supply of fresh seafood caught by the local fishermen. We found this market was angled towards those staying in the resorts. While the seafood was fresh and looked beautiful, it was well out of our budget, as were most of the other items in the market. Most exciting was the fresh ice cream rolls they make. They pour fresh fruit and yoghurt onto a frozen workbench, mixing and working it until it has frozen before they roll it into curls to eat. Absolutely delicious!
Duong Dong Markets
While these aren’t an attraction, we found the local markets at Duong Dong fascinating. With such a huge fishing community, a lot of the produce is sold at the markets. A hive of activity, it was amazing to see how it all works. From the markets, we continued to walk to the beach where the fishing boats moor overnight. I found it was intriguing to see how the locals live, and how polluted the beach was. Every step you had to dodge bits of rubbish. Anything unwanted seemed to end up on the beach. Quite the contrast to our clean beaches at home.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
We gained most insight into the Vietnamese culture at the Duong Dong markets and the local beach. It was interesting to watch, most of the locals seem to congregate around the beach and harbour in the evening to relax with their friends, swim and enjoy the sunset. Certainly a very social place and everyone seems to be extremely happy.
Most interesting was the contrast between Long Beach, where all the resorts are located, and the local beach. Both the markets and the local beach were located on the far side of a bridge and it seems not many tourists cross the bridge, but this is the main hub of activity and where all the culture is located. With the beaches only separated by the harbour mouth, which is approximately 100m wide, it isn’t surprising Long Beach is polluted. It certainly had me thinking twice about putting my head under. However, I am comparing the beach to the pristine waters at Koh Rong, which are difficult to beat. Perhaps you wouldn’t notice without the comparison.
WHAT WE LEARNT
We bought our tickets for the transfer to Can Tho from John’s Tours. They were extremely helpful and we purchased an all-inclusive ticket from Phu Quoc to Can Tho. The staff were very attentive and the price was reasonable. It definitely proved to be worth buying the all-inclusive ticket too (there will be more on this in the Can Tho blog)!
We managed well with the budget in Phu Quoc, however we didn’t do too many activities. We found things to be more expensive than we were expecting, especially food. Budget-friendly options were available but we had to search for them.
I would love to hear any comments about other people’s experiences at Phu Quoc. While we enjoyed it, we found it was more suited for those wanting a resort holiday and it didn’t have as much to offer as what we thought. I do believe our experience was tainted, especially after a week at Sihanoukville and Koh Rong. Also, let us know any of your tips for travel through the rest of Vietnam. Alternatively, if you have any questions about Phu Quoc or our travel to date, leave us a comment below or email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will do my best to help.